I want to thank everyone who responded to last week’s invitation to submit requests for future posts. I received some really good suggestions, and I meant to respond to one of them in this post, but then I saw the sad news that Kent Haruf, author of Benediction, Eventide, Plainsong, The Tie That Binds, and Where You Once Belonged, had died, and my mind turned from issues of craft to issues of how to carry oneself as a writer. Kent was expert at both.
I first met him in the early 90s when I was a doctoral student at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln. He came to do a reading, and afterwards I approached him and said I grew up two hours northeast of where he was teaching at Southern Illinois University in Carbondale, Illinois. I am, by nature, a shy person, but I very much wanted Kent to know how his work spoke to me. I wanted to establish some common ground. So I spoke about Illinois and I told him I missed the woodlands. He told me he missed the open space of western Nebraska and eastern Colorado. Lesson learned: love what you love without apology.
Fast forward a few years, and I’m landing at Lambert Field in St. Louis, where Kent picks me up and drives me to Carbondale for a job interview. It’s not a short drive, and we get to talking about growing up in small towns and before I know it we’re talking about spirituality, and Kent says to me, “I know I’m not supposed to ask you these questions, and if you try to sue me, I’ll deny everything.” I said, “Kent, don’t worry. We’re just two guys talking.” He asked me if I believed in a deity and whether I thought there was an afterlife. It was clear that he asked me because he was thinking about such things himself, and for whatever reason he saw me as someone who might lend him a sympathetic ear, which I did. We chatted about what we believed, what we questioned, what we thought might be possible. We were just two guys with miles to eat up and things on our minds. Lesson learned: Say what you mean; admit what you don’t know.
A few years later, my first memoir, From Our House, was set to come out from Dutton. Kent was kind enough to provide a blurb. Not only that, he wrote me a postcard to tell me he had done so and to say he hoped the book “sold like hotcakes.” Lesson learned: Do what you can; be kind. We are all life-long apprentices to the craft.
Kent once said, “Writing is the hardest thing I know, but it was the only thing I wanted to do. I wrote for 20 years and published nothing before my first book.” Lesson learned: Love what’s hard—love it all the more because it’s hard and because it matters that much to you.
Five years later, Kent provided a blurb for my novel, The Bright Forever: “Lee Martin’s The Bright Forever goes deep into the mystery of being alive on this earth. Written in the clearest prose, working back and forth over its complex story, and told in the dark, desperate, vivid voices of its various speakers, it holds you spellbound to the end, to its final, sad revelations.”
So here we are at the end, at those inevitable, sad revelations. I’ll miss Kent’s directness, his wry humor, his beautifully crafted sentences, his way of carrying himself, without pretension, without airs, his way of being a writer, which to him meant being a workman. I love this Facebook post from Kent’s former colleague Allison Joseph: “I remember Kent telling us that to write Plainsong, he would go down in the basement of his house in Murphysboro and write that day’s pages with the screen dark and a hat over his eyes.” Lesson learned: Earn your job and do it faithfully without complaint.
I also love Allison’s story of when Kent was living in a mobile home park in Carbondale and was explaining to a neighbor that his job was to teach people to write. The neighbor took this literally, thinking Kent taught handwriting, and Kent saw no reason to correct this impression. Lesson learned: We are all from the same tribe—no one better or worse than anyone else—and we should never forget that.